A caltrop is a small object with four sharp spikes arranged such that however it lands on the ground, three spikes are down and one is pointing up. Ninjas are said to have tossed these on the ground as they ran away to stop barefoot pursuers.
A caltrop argument is a defensive argument that attempts to avoid an argument rather than respond to it honestly.
My favorite caltrop argument goes something like this:
Atheist: There is no absolute truth beyond trivial statements like 1 + 1 = 2.
Christian: Well, that certainly sounded like an absolute truth statement! Aha—you’ve defeated yourself!
Atheist: [sigh] Fine. What I should have said was “I have never seen evidence of such absolute truth statements.”
The atheist in this exchange made a mistake. But instead of interpreting the statement charitably and finding the valid point wrapped in an imperfect presentation, the Christian tried to use the mistake to avoid the point completely.
Of course, I’m not saying that only one group is guilty of this. Atheists can toss out caltrops to avoid confronting an argument as well. But the person interested in the truth confronts an argument directly.
- See all the definitions in the Galileo Unchained Glossary.
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Do you think that the more abstract point is “all analogies fail at some point”? If so, would that mean that it is impossible to not make a mistake when using a Caltrop argument?
As I have gained more experience trying to convey a complicated point that contradicts a strongly held belief, I find myself more and more leaning towards simply making the statement in isolation and then taking responsibility for it by addressing the counter arguments issued in response. In person this tends to lead to a more Socratic form of discussion as we slowly dial the abstract meaning of my statement into the other person’s head. This also makes online conversations much more difficult and time consuming.
In my mind, making a caltrop argument is always inappropriate (at least to the person who’s interested in honest inquiry and engagement).
Your comment about how you like to approach arguments sounds like discussions I’ve had when I defend a naturalist approach to morality. I still prepare myself to wade through the (quite possibly honest) confusion so that we eventually have a common vocabulary. Only then can my opponent offer a critique. And only then can I look for errors in my approach.
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